Ubuntu... whut?

At this point, you may be wondering, "What is Ubuntu?" I'm glad you asked, so let's hop to it!

City Year has ten core values--empowering action words or phrases around which any hopeless optimist like myself can choose to guide his life:

  1. Service to a Cause Greater Than Self
  2. Students First, Collaboration Always
  3. Belief in the Power of Young People
  4. Social Justice For All
  5. Level Five Leadership
  6. Empathy
  7. Inclusivity
  8. Ubuntu
  9. Teamwork
  10. Excellence
I know, you're tearing up just reading this munu of inspiring ideals for the perfect utopian society. (Don't worry, I promise we're not a cult). Upon first reading this list, I wasn't too surprised with the qualities listed. In fact, these ten values could pretty much be extrapolated into my official job title. It was very easy to familiarize myself with most of these values, considering nine of them are clearly indicative of my role as a mentor, tutor, community server, and leader. However, I was taken aback by number eight: Ubuntu... whut?

The following is paraphrased from City Year's explanation of Ubuntu:

Ubuntu is a term borrowed from the Zulu tribe of South Africa, which roughly translates into english as, "I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours." The concept expresses an essential spiritual truth about the world: we are all connected to each other through invisible webs of interdependence. We share a common world and a collective destiny, and the struggles of the few affect the many. In a very real sense, there is no "us" and "them,"... there is only "us." We deepen our own humanity when we strengthen our capacity to recognize and honor the humanity of others. 

Ubuntu informs our commitment to treat everyone we encounter with deep respect, and to act from the belief that supporting the success and empowerment of others supports our own success and empowerment. Ubuntu is a way of being and a quality of presence that we should aspire to bring to all of our relationships.


Tye and I after a long day of training at New York Life exhibiting "Ubuntu."

After weighing the risk of making this post even sappier, essentially "we're all in this together." In my City Year experience especially, it has been incredible to be forced at times to connect with someone with whom you wouldn't normally connect. For example, during our basic training retreat in upstate New York, we participated in an Ubuntu workshop. It only consisted of finding a random person in the room and conversing with them for approximately 40 minutes. Our hearts dropped in the room... we already found our niche, we've already formed a team, why do we have to be put under more social anxiety?

I said "hello" to the first person I saw with whom I had never spoken before. His name was Will. As directed, we found a location more suitable than a room of 300 people to have a good ol' fashioned "bro-talk." It turned out we actually had a lot in common--similar backgrounds, similar aspirations, similar ways of thinking. It was almost shocking.

It's difficult to find friendships with which you feel comfortable to speak about very personal things. And even after you find them, they may take a while to reach that point. After this activity, I realized the barriers that form between interpersonal connections are solely formed by us. We don't have to place them there. In fact, if we wanted to, we could engage in the deepest of conversations with a complete stranger. There have been a few times in my life where that has happened, and I always draw back to those conversations when I want to tell a good story. Why must they be few and far between?

At the end of the day, we make the choice to do everything we do. So, as Ms. Frizzle says on The Magic Schoolbus, let's "take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" What do we have to lose? We are all interconnected in some way, shape, or form. Even if the connection seems negative at first, the worst it can really do is offer a different perspective. Shared perspectives are Ubuntu. And Ubuntu is awesome.

Watch Nelson Mandela elaborate on Ubuntu: